March 13, 2014

Police Officers See Black Kids Differently Than White Kids

A study published in late February 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, considered whether black children (boys, in particular), were generally seen as less “childlike” than white boys, if they were dehumanized along racial lines, and viewed as more appropriate targets for police violence. Starting with the presumption that society views children as innocent and deserving of protection, the researchers asked college students and police officers to guess the ages of young children who had committed crime. Both sets of respondents were considerably more likely to overestimate the ages of young black boys than the white children. In sum, the police officers were more inclined to see the black boys as less human, less childlike, and less innocent than their white counterparts.

This strikes me as less of a comment about policing or racial attitudes amongst police officers, than a statement about the amount of progress our society has achieved in addressing longstanding racial prejudices and stereotyping.

As a civil rights attorney in New York City, it's impossible to pretend that race is not a factor in the conflicts that crop up with law enforcement. Sometimes, as statistically and anecdotally proven in the Stop and Frisk litigation, race is an express component in NYPD policing policies. Other times, it is an unspoken element in the way officers treat people, the way the treatment is perceived, and the way both parties react to each other. While not every false arrest or act of misconduct is racially motivated, no one in New York can seriously deny that our city is really multiple cities, with different rules for different people, depending on what neighborhood you're in and what you look like.

We have made great strides over the past several decades in terms of acknowledging and attempting to overcome this country's long history of slavery, deeply held racism, bigotry, and generally disparate treatment of people because of their skin color, ethnicity, and the like. It would be grossly inaccurate to suggest that our stated rejection of racial bias, and the public endorsement of the need for, and importance of ending racism and inequality, means that we are becoming a color-blind society.

In my personal experience, people are often uncomfortable talking about race, and many white people react defensively to the suggestion that race still matters. But, studies such as this are further evidence that we are still quite a ways away from eliminating racial bigotry, particularly on a subconscious level. It would help immensely if we could talk frankly about what this all means.

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